in the City of Light
by Bettina Rheims and Serge Bramly
A minute’s walk from the tranquil Jardin du Palais-Royal, along rue Vivienne, is the unassuming Galerie de photographie of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF). It was late April, a Friday afternoon, and the sun was shining. Euphoria wasn’t to last – the feeling that all was right with the world, however incredible that thought may be, changed once inside the gallery. There, the visitor was drawn into a dark world where time did not exist.
Rose, c’est Paris, a film and photography exhibition, is mindaltering; the film in particular is seductive and, no doubt for some, confrontational or, more likely, incomprehensible. The plot is intentionally loose, and refers to the disappearance of Rose and the quest of her twin sister, known only as “B”, to find her. As one might expect, the film presents a feast of bizarre imagery, and is replete with mysticism, eroticism, suicide and murder. The accompanying photography exhibition extends the experience of the feature-length film, which plays on a big screen in the main gallery space’s antechamber as well as on smaller
screens integrated with the wallmounted exhibition.
Both film and photographs – the collaborative effort of illustrious French photographer Bettina Rheims and her former husband, writer Serge Bramly – are black and white, enhancing the impression the events depicted are the product of some by-gone era, as mysterious and exotically stylised as the film’s imagery. The uncertainty of time only adds to the air of mystery; it could feasibly be set in any year from 1911 to the mid-1960s, although the ambience of the 1930s is specifically evoked by Rheims in an interview for the BnF’s magazine, Chroniques de la BnF: “We were transported back to the Paris of the 1930s, which was the source of all artistic creation of the twentieth century, the era of the Surrealists, of Duchamp, of Picasso, of Man Ray…” Rheims also singles out André Breton as a provider of inspiration for the film’s dreamlike meanderings with his 1928 novel Nadja.1
The very title of this body of work, Rose, c’est Paris, is a reference to the Dada
and Surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp as his cross-dressing alter-ego, Rrose Sélavy (famously photographed as such in 1921 by Man Ray), which was in turn a reference to the expression Éros c’est la vie (Eros, that’s life). This play on expression, name and film title is reflected in the title of the Chroniques de la BnF interview.
There is, however, an earlier influence at work, and this is why 1911 is a candidate for the film’s setting: it was the year the sensational French crime-fiction character, Fantômas, was created by collaborating writers Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain. Fantômas, embodying the darkest forces of the human psyche, fascinated the Surrealists – especially the poet and writer Robert Desnos – and, quoted by Rheims and Bramly as le mal absolu (the absolute evil),2 Rose, c’est Paris joins other homages to the “monstrous creature” who killed without remorse and wore black leather gloves fashioned from the skin of one of his victims.
Image: Joyau de l’art gothique, detail of cover, exhibition catalogue, Bettina Rheims & Serge Bramly, Rose, c’est Paris, Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 2010. Joyau de l’art gothique © Bettina Rheims. Acknowledgement: Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris.